Q&A: Buncombe County Libraries Director Jason Hyatt on libraries as social services

David Hyatt
HELP ON HAND: Pack Library has had a social worker on-site since 2022. "There are moments when people's behavior might be slightly outside of the lines of what's acceptable in the library," says Buncombe County Public Libraries Director Jason Hyatt. "A benefit of the social worker being here is that he has been able to help deescalate." Photo by Jessica Wakeman

Public libraries have increasingly become locations for communities to meet the needs of underresourced citizens. Buncombe County Public Libraries are not only a place for literature, film, research, story hours and free yoga classes. They also provides amenities like public bathrooms, heating, air conditioning and internet access, which are enjoyed by everyone but are lifelines for some patrons.

Municipalities nationwide know “a lot of the frequent visitors to our urban libraries need some additional support,” says Buncombe County Public Libraries Director Jason Hyatt, who was hired in January. That includes the 16 branches of BCPL, which had 719,229 visits from county patrons between June 2022 and July 2023.

BCPL has introduced two initiatives to support patrons who are underresourced. One is the provision of free disposable menstrual products in all its restrooms; the other is Sam Stanley, a social worker who works out of Pack Library. Buncombe County funds the position; however, Stanley is technically an employee of Homeward Bound.

Hyatt spoke with Xpress about addressing hygiene needs at the library, how the social worker supports mental health and wellness, and why libraries are for everyone.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Buncombe County Public Libraries began providing disposable menstrual products in the restrooms of all its branches in July. How did the libraries come to address the issue of period poverty?

It started as a pilot project [in November 2022], with the period products being available in the restrooms at our North Asheville and our Enka-Candler libraries. That was successful, so we made a proposal to our county management [to expand], and they signed off on it. We were able to put period products in all the restrooms across Buncombe County Libraries.

When you say the pilot was “successful,” does that mean staff found that all the disposable menstrual products had been used? 

Not necessarily. We don’t track what’s been taken in or out, other than for restocking purposes. … For us, success looks like positive feedback. People made comments at the pilot locations that they appreciated it’s available.

I also view the pilot as a success because it’s an indicator that the library cares about you and that we want you to have a good experience. For someone who is not experiencing period poverty — or isn’t even aware of what it is — this service might not even register. But for a person who needs those products and finds themself in a difficult spot, that can make all the difference in the world [when they] visit the library that day.

Would BCPL consider providing other hygiene products to patrons in their restrooms?

We have talked in general about what needs exist for hygiene. We haven’t settled on anything yet. We want to give this a little more time to see how it works, but we haven’t ruled it out. We want to remove barriers, whatever they look like.

I think the subject of period poverty isn’t well-known, and certainly a lot of people who don’t menstruate don’t understand how expensive menstrual products can be. Have any patrons complained about the library addressing this need?

No complaints.

From an equity standpoint, the county’s core values and the things that we believe in as a library, we’re on solid footing. I feel well supported by the county administration. A few other libraries in the state are [providing menstrual products] as well, and so are other major systems in the country. It’s not a brand-new idea, even though it’s new to Buncombe County.

A lot of the legwork on why — the justification, responding to people who say, “Why do libraries need this?” — that work has already been done. So, we’re ready to respond if we get some pushback. We are always prepared to articulate why we do things and why we make organizational changes.

Let’s talk about the social worker who has an office on-site at Pack Library. When you applied for the job as library director, what did you think when you learned that a social worker has been working at the county’s branches since spring 2022? 

That was a selling point for me. … I thought that was fantastic. And now that I’ve settled in, I see how important and meaningful that work is to the day-to-day interactions and services that go on here.

What sort of needs led the county to place a social worker in the main library branch? 

As we know, there are epidemics with opioids and other substances. We’re not drug-screening anybody when they come in, but there are times when it seems reasonable to suspect somebody might be under the influence. Many, many people who are experiencing some degree of housing insecurity [come in]. We have regulars that come in who are experiencing a mental health crisis.

The staff at Pack are fantastic. I have been so impressed by the compassion, the respect and the skill with which they serve such a diverse group of patrons every day. They often deal with challenging things.

What the social worker is able to do is provide a direct connection to other resources, but also become a friendly, welcoming face. The social worker is very skilled at making that one-on-one connection [through] providing designated office hours. [Patrons] can make appointments with him. But there are also times where he is stationed at a table in the public space down in the adult services area. It is almost like triage — whatever needs arise, he can help you right there on the spot, sit down and talk with people.

How can the library’s social worker provide support beyond the scope of what a librarian can do? 

There are moments when people’s behavior might be slightly outside of the lines of what’s acceptable in the library. A benefit of the social worker being here is that he has been able to help deescalate. [The patron may be] somebody he’s familiar with from some of the other service agencies that he’s directly helped in the past, and he’s already got that rapport.

If not, then he’s got that social work background and skill set that helps him talk through a situation, calm things down, look for options. It’s a benefit all around — it helps support the staff and the patrons fully.

Do Buncombe County librarians and other library employees receive training on trauma-informed care and deescalation for these situations? 

We do have deescalation training [for] all of our staff. It’s offered across the county, but we’ve been able to do some work that’s specialized and specific to library situations. There are people who specialize in public library services for folks who experience homelessness, so we’ve had webinars for our staff to participate in. We’ve also worked with county safety and security staff to go through specific scenarios. … A lot of our work focuses around [what to do] if an exchange gets heated.

I know we’ve been talking specifically about unhoused folks and people experiencing mental illness. But I would imagine, as with any public place or business, exchanges sometimes get heated with anybody. Everyone has bad days sometimes.  

If we learn a deescalation technique that is geared toward helping someone who might be experiencing a mental health crisis, we can use some of those same practices dealing with somebody who’s just really upset about a lost book that’s on their account. Or we get people who are upset that there’s no place to park. Those kinds of things. There’s a range of emotions and experiences [from our patrons], and we try to keep staff prepared for whatever may happen.

You mentioned substance use issues earlier. How is the library equipped to address patrons who are dealing with that? 

All of our staff are trained in assessing the situation and determining the best course of action with the challenge of substance issues. We have Narcan available at all of our locations. We treat that as a completely optional training for staff, but I’m pleased to say that many, many of our staff have taken the training and would feel comfortable deploying the Narcan if needed.

One thing I want to make clear is that this should in no way paint our libraries as an unsafe space. I think in many ways, it’s one of the safest places people can go to because we are welcoming, friendly and trained to deescalate. We aim to connect people with resources and information. Whatever else is going on with your life that might be impacting your behavior, we will work with you. We will make a referral. We will hand you off to somebody who can help. But we recognize we’re at the crossroads of everybody who’s out and about.

The library should be for everyone.



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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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2 thoughts on “Q&A: Buncombe County Libraries Director Jason Hyatt on libraries as social services

  1. Jt

    The priority should be the safety and experience of normal patrons. When you bend over backwards to make the homeless comfortable, there will just be more of them pushing us away.

  2. KWW

    Thank you for upholding the mission of libraries to be for all patrons and to be an uncensored source of reliable, confidential information in an era where censorship and exclusion of socially disenfranchised persons seem to be growing.

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